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the limits to identity and representation

April 9, 2019
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Chicago’s first Black lesbian mayor, Mayor Lori Lightfoot was elected last week and there were two reactions. The first was that her history and policy suggestions fail the standards of many progressive organizers and thought leaders in Chicago, the very people I look towards to better understand Lightfoot’s identity (outside of the mainstream media’s take). The second is that people, inside and outside of Chicago, were excited about Lightfoot’s election solely due to her gender, race, and sexuality. To them, what Lightfoot represented, as somebody living on systemically marginalized intersections, overshadowed the reality of who Lightfoot the politician is.

For many, myself included, Lightfoot’s collusion with the infamously corrupt Chicago Police Department, and her centrist views on certain policies, do not represent a progressive agenda. Yet she reminded me of my mother: Black, lesbian, and stern. The symbolism of her — the warmth of seeing someone being empowered, trusted, and celebrated that reminded me of my mother — was potent. Yet, even beyond the symbolism, I knew that she was being used as a vehicle for the same political forces that my mother had once taught me to resist. The intellectual dissonance was palpable.

Mayor Lightfoot served as the president of the Chicago police board. Despite her intense desire to rebrand and re-contextualize her history of supporting law enforcement policies, into that of a benevolent reformist looking to create change from the inside, some facts remain: Mayor Lightfoot’s now infamous reaction to a mourning, protesting community, over the wrongful death of Rekia Boyd by a police officer during an activist shut down, clearly displayed a way of maneuvering through systems that made her a vessel for the right, not a trojan horse for radicalism. As renowned Black lesbian writer and theorist, Audre Lorde, once famously said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

In this case, the tools  are not just where Lightfoot worked, or the position she held professionally, but her reaction. Lightfoot displayed a neutrality towards the resisting Black community, and a commitment to white objectivity and normalcy that Martin Luther King Jr. warned us against, in his letter from Birmingham jail. She remained a witness to domination, and offered no intervention or comfort. During the end of the protest, she called it a “disruption.” In actuality, it was not a disruption but a moment to gain the trust of community organizers who’d been requesting that the city of Chicago begin to center and prioritize the quality of Black life. In that moment, Lightfoot failed actual expectations even as the symbol of her lived on.

Yet undervaluing the power of symbolism also can’t be the answer to having conversations about systematically marginalized people, who are finding individual power and influence in dominant culture. We can’t undervalue the seduction that seeing people known to be in abject societal positions, become leaders. It perfectly fits the underdog narrative that many of us have been fed since childhood, even as we never consider that, in America, some people are underdogs and some are top dogs; but that people like us  — the marginalized and disappeared — are an entirely different species, always positioned to be used. And while Mayor Lori Lightfoot is not an underdog, she is being used.

The visual and the symbolic are most often powerful because of the stories they hold. There is, for example, one image of Dylan Roof staring into the camera in his mugshot that terrifies me to this day. It is this singular photograph, more than any other visual evidence of the 2015 Charleston, SC church massacre, that has left me most scarred years later, etched in my imagination. His lifeless eyes are proof that there is something lacking — a soul — something to empathize with. It haunted me that this was the last pair of eyes that nine Black people gazed into before meeting their death. The photograph of Roof is, for me, a symbol of complete white supremacist evil.

In 2015, President Obama was in office and I was immensely disappointed by him — even politically opposed — especially his carelessness toward life around global violence and immigration. Obama also condescended to Black men, most notably in a Morehouse speech that felt glaringly anti-Black and ahistorical — but under the guise of intercommunal truth-telling. He lacked the urgency to provide direct empowerment to Black people and indigenous people, opting instead to create blanket fixes for the nation, that would hopefully “trickle down” to the most marginalized. On a good day, President Obama was, for me, a disappointment in what I thought a Black president — or any president that appropriates progressive ideas to gain control — could be; on a bad day, he was an embarrassment with the imperial power to terrorize.

However, I needed Obama’s symbolism on the day of the funeral for the nine people slain in Charleston. When the President sang “Amazing Grace” from his gut — a song rooted in the promise of the Black soul to this nation, that in the face of immeasurable terror, Black folks will show a grace that is fantastic, unthinkable, amazing — I needed that image, and it was transformative. The moment made me feel sensations of courage and pride, where fear and rage once exclusively lived. Despite all the narratives I knew to be true about Barack Obama’s politics, I was compelled by the story that he and his family produced for me: elegance, bravery, pride, and power. In that moment of despair, the things they symbolized, I was thirsty for. This need can’t be ignored or minimized, or we’ll never get to better leadership, but only leadership that looks better.

Four years later, there’s a similar dilemma with Mayor Lori Lightfoot: how to push people to see beyond identity and reckon with the full reality of a political candidate, without dismissing the power of representation. The answer can’t be to ignore someone’s actual work and policy for the sake of fictive community, or to ignore the power of someone’s influence solely based on identity. The answer must be to elect more people who represent the marginalized, who hold power and integrity, and also look like us. This would ensure that we are not so in awe of the representation, that we lose focus of what a person’s actions and thoughts are actually representing. This needs to be the standard, in hope that we aren’t so easily seduced by Black people delivering the same forms of oppression as white, male political leaders. This is imperative especially when those political leaders remind us more of our family members and know the lyrics to our favorite gospel hymns.